MOUNT PLEASANT - The combination of a nationally elite defense with young and developing offensive weapons led the Central Michigan women’s soccer program to unprecedented success in 2012.
For the first time in Mid-American Conference women’s soccer history, the Chippewas (15-7-1, 9-2-0 MAC) were selected as an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament on the strength of their exceptionally difficult non-conference schedule.
“Getting the at-large bid has proved that anything is possible with hard work on the practice field,” interim head coach Ian Carry said. “We’ve broke the glass ceiling for future MAC teams to go on and achieve things like we did this season.”
The Maroon and Gold battled valiantly in their first round match against the Michigan Wolverines in Ann Arbor, Mich., leading 1-0 for more than 85 minutes on an early goal by leading scorer sophomore forward Laura Gosse before allowing the equalizer with just 41 seconds remaining. The Wolverines scored the game-winner five minutes into the extra period to claim the win and hand the Chippewas a heartbreaking loss to end their season.
“We gave everything we had against Michigan, and just fell at the final hurdle in the final 41 seconds of regulation,” Carry said. “My heart sank for the seniors, because it was their final game at CMU, but I was so impressed by the way some of our freshmen played. I hope this experience will increase our hunger going into the spring and continue into the fall.”
The winningest senior class in CMU women’s soccer history - a large class of eight that compiled a 63-19-8 record during its four years in Mount Pleasant - led the Chippewas to strong showings against national powers West Virginia (2-0 win), Dayton (4-2 win) and No. 12 Marquette (0-0 double-overtime draw). In total the Chippewas faced three ranked teams in Marquette, No. 6 Penn State and No. 14 Texas A&M. Those three teams and Michigan all advanced to at least the third round of the NCAA Tournament, and Penn State finished as the national runner-up.
“It’s games like these that really prepare you for your conference schedule and tough teams like Miami (Ohio),” Carry said. “You have to give credit to the players. This year’s preconference schedule was very tough, and to come out of it the way they did was fantastic. That experience will last for the rest of their lives, being able to say that they played some really big teams and matched some really big teams.”
All of that came in addition to two tough matchups against MAC Regular Season and Tournament Champions Miami (Ohio). The Chippewas battled the RedHawks to a 1-0 double-overtime regular season loss in Mount Pleasant, and fell again to Miami in the MAC Tournament Championship to a 2-1 loss on the RedHawks’ turf.
As a result of their strong showings, the Chippewas made a splash in the national rankings. Central Michigan climbed as high as 31st nationally in the NCAA Division I Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) rankings - its highest mark in program history - and finished the regular season 36th. The Maroon and Gold also reached a program-high third-place ranking in the NSCAA Great Lakes Region following the Chippewas’ results against Dayton and Marquette.
At the core of the Chippewas success was a corps of veteran defensive players. Led by 2012 MAC Defensive Player of the Year senior Bailey Brandon and first-team All-MAC selections senior defender Katie Slaughter and senior goalkeeper Stefanie Turner, the Chippewas finished the regular season 22nd in NCAA Division I shutout percentage at .545, and were just three shutouts off the overall national lead with 12.
The defense was dynamic in MAC play, leading CMU to a MAC West Division regular season title. Only six goals were ceded during conference play, fewest of any MAC team, and the Chippewas blanked conference opponents six times, tied for the most in conference play.
Complementing the stout defensive backline, which also featured MAC All-Tournament selection junior Estee Outcalt and veteran junior defensive midfielder Tory Kinniard, was an offensive attack that possessed the ball very well and scored timely goals to make the defensive efforts stand. Gosse led the Chippewas with five goals and added an assist for a co-team leading 11 points. Freshman forward Danielle Rotheram added four goals and three assists for 11 points and earned MAC All-Tournament honors, while junior forward Jennifer Gassman scored four times and assisted on two others for 10 points.
Senior First Team All-MAC selections forward Laura Twidle and Autumn Hawkins gave the Chippewas two more potent offensive options. Twidle added three goals and three assists, while Hawkins poured in four goals.
Perhaps best embodying the Chippewas’ relentless defense and persistent offense was a 2-1 double-overtime victory at Northern Illinois in which they played 10-on-11 for 82 minutes after losing Slaughter to an unfortunate red card in the 26th minute. The Chippewas fell behind, 1-0, on the ensuing penalty kick.
Hawkins scored the equalizing goal in the 75th minute to force overtime, and seven minutes into the second overtime period Twidle found freshman midfielder Christen Chiesa on the near side for a shot that bent past the goalkeeper for the game-winner. When the dust had settled, CMU finished with twice as many shots as the Huskies, including a 10-4 advantage in the second half.
Rotheram and Chiesa, along with freshmen midfielder Josie Seebeck and defender Emily Basten, formed a group of strong young players that will help carry the team into the future. Rotheram, Chiesa and Seebeck all earned MAC All-Freshman honors.